35 Albums in 35 Years: 1999

In an ongoing attempt to bleed my opinions all over your computer screen, I’m selecting one album from every year that I’ve been alive that has some sort of significance to me…and then writing about it. Welcome back to 35 Albums in 35 Years.

 

magnetic fields1999: The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs

“Now my heart’s running round like a chicken with its head cut off.”

As daunting a prospect as writing an article about The Magnetic Fields’ seminal magnum opus 69 Love Songs is, I can only imagine how it must have felt to set out and write and record the thing. Spread out over three volumes, the collection dips its proverbial toes into a great and wide myriad of styles and genres, from country to folk, disco to punk, vaudeville to experimental. All the while, the mega-album keeps a fun and loose pop aesthetic, a sing-songy, sugary undercurrent to what is otherwise a long series of traditionally written tunes. The sheer volume of material insinuates a complexity therein that belies the actual simplicity and ease with which the songs ebb and flow. This is classic songwriting. This is perfect pop. This is the culmination of decades of popular music.

How did we get here?

Just like everybody has a “Cure guy” in his or her life, most everyone has a “Magnetic Fields guy” as well, even if you don’t know who it is yet. Or, more specifically, you have a “Stephin Merritt guy,” the principle singer/songwriter of the group. I met mine at my on-campus job during my junior year of college, the same guy who got me back into comic books after a five year hiatus. I guess I owe him a lot.

“Let’s pretend we’re bunny rabbits. Let’s do it all day long.”

The thing that drew my friend into the work of Stephin Merritt was the wordplay, the sometimes sly or whimsical rhyming couplets that can evoke everything from heartbreak to laughter, by way of some crude and funny double entendres. At times the style can almost come off like a grade school joke via Cole Porter, classic and clever, but with an underlying sweetness that shines brightly. I had spent the last ten years listening to undecipherable metaphors, broad and abstract themes, sardonic, tongue-in-cheek wise-assery, nihilistic rage and desperation, and butt-shaking gibberish, so this straightforward and wily approach to song structure struck me hard. It didn’t jive with me at first. It’s really hard to take lyrics and songs like The Magnetic Fields are making and not apply some unwarranted sense of irony to them. I predominantly grew up in the 90’s, so I’m horrible about this, but you’ve just got to let that snide attitude subside. You’ve got to let it go and just enjoy these fun (and sometimes stupid) songs in earnest.

I did, and it opened up everything.

69 Love Songs led me on to other albums by The Magnetic Fields and beyond. And brother, there are a lot of them. Merritt seems to go through highly prolific periods, either with The Magnetic Fields, his other recording projects like Gothic Archies, The 6ths, and Future Bible Heroes, or under the guise of his own namesake, then followed by prolonged silences. This can make for a staggering amount of work to sift through when approaching a band like The Magnetic Fields. So many songs. So many styles. So much playful art. To me, 69 Love Songs encompasses pretty much everything the band has ever done, or will ever do. There is a song for even the most black-hearted of us in its grooves and tracks. You too can hum and dance along.

“We still dance in my outrageously beautiful Busby Berkeley dreams.”

-Favorite song: “A Chicken with its Head Cut Off” (from Vol. 1)
-Runner up: “Long-Forgotten Fairytale” (from Vol. 2)

Some other albums I almost wrote about instead: Blur’s 13; The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin; Mr. Bungle’s California; Sigur Ros’ Agaetis Byrjun; Olivia Tremor Control’s Black Foliage: Animation Music Vol. 1; The Roots’ Things Fall Apart.

 

Thomas H Williams

Thomas H Williams

From a bunker somewhere in Central Texas, Thomas H. Williams spends most of his time with his wife, his two sons, and his increasingly neurotic dog. He listens to a lot of music, drinks a lot of excellent beers, and gets out from time to time. For even more shenanigans, visit heavenisanincubator.blogspot.com.

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